Recent reports of young Iraqis' getting smashed to death by cinderblocks (known as mawt al-blokkah) for their alleged emo identity, have sent a chilling message to many Iraqi youth. Some reports claim that over 100 young Iraqis have suffered brutal beatings since February, and even conservative estimates put the number over 50. Evidence indicates that there have been at least a dozen murders.
Emo is understood in the West as a softened version of its more aggressive cousins, punk rock and hard rock. The genre is characterized by maudlin confessional lyrics and an androgynous fashion style that appeals to trendy teenagers. However, in the Iraqi context, “emo” is an accusatory term that represents a degenerate lifestyle. Such beliefs are rooted in the country's intolerance for homosocial behavior and xenophobia against the West, the source of emo sensibilities.
The emo subculture has been slandered by key moral figures and propagandized as a community of social deviants with a penchant for the occult. On February 13th, the Iraqi Interior Ministry released a statement that condemned the “phenomenon of emo” as “satanic.” The threat is not only directed at individuals who dress in emo-punk fashions. Sources claim that a number of young men have been targeted for effeminate behavior, as well as women for their masculinity. The mixed attacks have stirred up confusion among youth communities in Baghdad. Everyone feels vulnerable. Consequently, many young people have taken to concealing their behavior and dress, fearing they might draw attention to themselves by sporting angular haircuts, piercings, nail polish or black, Western-style clothing.
The most frightening implication is that the justice system is deeply biased against such social outcasts. For individuals who defy conventional gender norms, legal protection is not an option. In Iraq, and throughout the Middle East, gay persons are fair game. Violence committed against them is perceived as either technically justifiable or at least partially excusable.
Although the assailants responsible for these crimes have not been identified, their violent actions resonate with the Interior Ministry's emophobia. In August 2011, the Iraqi Education Ministry sent out memos to curb the spread of emo culture in schools and deployed a police task force to investigate and hunt them down. Soon after, threatening fliers listing offenders by name were posted anonymously in several neighborhoods. Less than a month later, the murders began.
It has been nine years since the end of the Hussein regime, but the persecution of minority groups is still rampant. The country is still rife with seemingly endless in-fighting, ranging from sectarian violence and indiscriminate attacks on civilian protesters, to the torture of prisoners. By several accounts, the Interior Ministry has failed in its obligation to uphold the rule of law. Rather than protecting civilians, the Ministry has often mandated violence and repression through its internal security forces.
While it may not be clear how the emo culture represents a political threat, members of the Interior Ministry as well as unidentified outside forces are involved in these attacks.
“The Interior Ministry jump-started this witch-hunt by comparing the Iraqi emo community to Satanists,” said Reid Smith, resident Iraq blogger at Foreign Policy Association. “They’ve essentially mobilized their brown shirts to eradicate young men and women who they believe have chosen a perverse lifestyle.”
Amid growing public concern, the Interior Ministry toned down its language. Two of the country’s most prominent political figures, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, publicly condemned the killings, and many members of Iraq’s parliament called for an investigation. However, social bias against alternative lifestyles makes justice unlikely for these vulnerable populations, and provides conditions for continued violence. “The change in rhetoric from the Interior Ministry is just lip-service to a Western liberal chiding,” says Smith. “They’ve been engaged in a culture crusade against social deviance and abnormality for quite some time, and I don't expect them to stop.”
Despite public outcry, the Interior Ministry has not released an accurate death count. Nor have they repudiated their previous statements vilifying emos. The Shiite clerical hierarchy has denounced both the attacks and the emo culture, such as on March 10th when Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said that emos are “crazy fools” and a “lesion on the Muslim community” but they should be dealt with “within the law.”
Yet, as social outcasts, these youth lack even the most basic protections under the law. This kind of marginalization and open contempt towards social minorities is indicative of a system that is still trapped in a culture of violent sectarianism. As long as the Iraqi government continues to cultivate a practice of minority persecution, and hate crimes against young people are not only tolerated but encouraged, the country is destined to fail in its pursuit of social stability and greater development.